Like Pronto Pups and the largest boar, Sean Emery is a Minnesota State Fair staple. For 27 years, Emery has taken the stage twice a day at the Fair, and some families make sure to see his show ever year. It’s a quirky combination of expert juggling, gentle insults of the stoic Midwestern audience, and pratfalls off a unicycle that result in him spitting out busted teeth (actually Tic Tacs).
But the thousands of Minnesotans who’ve enjoyed his comedy-juggling act pale in comparison to the 13.8 million views he has racked up on his YouTube channel. There, using his alter-ego “Shug,” Emery posts videos that highlight another one of passions: hammock camping.
“I’m 60, and I’m still after a little Zen,” Emery told a visitor to his home in Roseville.
To understand the origin of his divergent passions, one must understand Sean Emery.
A native of Charlotte, N.C., he dropped out of college in 1979 and entered Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College in Venice, Fla., much to his widowed mother’s consternation. Upon graduation, Emery was one of the select few clowns invited to join the circus. He did. He spent three years traveling the country by train and falling in love with the then-Meg Elias, a showgirl-aerialist from Mendota Heights. When she left the circus for New York, he followed.
There, Emery first worked as a street performer — then he started getting gigs indoors, at bar mitzvahs and corporate events, and eventually on cruise ships, where the two performed a joint act. Their life was peripatetic and adventurous, but Emery was drinking , and it was a problem. They relocated to Minnesota between cruises, he sobered up, and they had a daughter, Aerial. Meg Elias-Emery opened Xelias Aerial Arts Studio in northeast Minneapolis. The circus performers settled down.
But Emery’s wanderlust persisted. As a boy, he’d been a Scout, and his dad took him camping on occasion. Transplanted to Minnesota, he embraced the outdoors life with gusto, heading out to hike and camp whenever his busy schedule allowed, preferring a hammock to a tent, and preferring cold weather to hot.
In the early days of the internet, Emery joined a few online discussion forums focused on hammock camping. Using a moniker he’d been bequeathed at a bluegrass festival (“Boy, you sing that song like sugar!”), “Shug” posted trip reports and gear reviews. And he developed a following. A friend gave him a camera, and he shot a short video while camping. When he asked Aerial how to post the video on a bulletin board, she said, “Dad, you need a YouTube account.”
That was 10 years ago. In his first video, Emery is wearing red culottes, and he opens by exclaiming, “Whooo, Buddy!” which has become his trademark catchphrase. Grainy and sometimes out-of-focus, it shows him hiking and camping in George Crosby Manitou State Park in Finland, Minn.
Now, hundreds of videos later, Emery has nearly 80,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, and he replies to every single comment, which he compares to meeting people in the crowd after a show at the Fair. “I have the nicest subscribers,” he said.
“Ninety percent of my videos are showing people how to do things,” he said as he sat in the Nut House, his name for a backyard structure he uses to store camping gear and practice his act (“I’m a teacher”).
He still scrolls through the hammock camping forums, looking for the questions that people are asking. In one recent video, he addressed side-sleeping, which some people find uncomfortable; in another, he showed how he stacks underquilts — he doesn’t use a sleeping bag but instead hangs down quilts above and below his hammock.
Those videos were filmed in his backyard studio-of-sorts, a spot familiar to his viewers. Emery has a hammock rigged up on two fenceposts, a tarp, and other accessories. His camera, a Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX80, stands on a tripod a few feet away. He often reviews gear. While he occasionally receives gifts of gear in the mail, he’s turned down sponsorship offers. He doesn’t want to feel obligated to give positive reviews, nor does he make camping videos for the money. (He’s also turned down offers to appear on the reality television shows “Alone” and “Naked and Afraid.”)
But Emery’s favorite videos to make are still the trip reports.
“I find peace in the woods,” he said. “The woods are like my church.”
While the entertainer in him comes out on these videos — silly jokes, wide-eyed facial expressions and various accents — he also takes long, slow shots of birchbark, a flower, or a drop of water on a leaf. These are what he calls “regard moments,” when he stops on the trail to regard the beauty in the small aspects of nature that many people run right past.
His most popular video, racking up nearly 500,000 views, is the record of a 2014 camping trip outside of Ely, when the temperature reached 40-below. “That video cycles every year,” he said, as people search for tips on winter camping.
He’s become something of a celebrity on the Superior Hiking Trail, with hikers shouting “Whoooo, Buddy!” when they see him coming. People have even asked to take selfies with his “Hillbilly Pot,” a blackened cooking pot that has starred in many videos.
His goal in the videos, Emery insisted, is to make people’s lives better — to bring them joy, not unlike his juggling act. One guy wrote in who was having trouble hanging his hammock, “and I wanted to get on a plane and fly there to help him figure it out! I try to be a bright-side guy. I’m an optimist,” he said.
While there are obvious problems in the world, there’s a lot of goodness, too, and that’s what Emery wants to focus on.
In late November, he’d just been invited back for his 28th year at the State Fair (“I do a lot of state fairs,” he said. “But there’s nothing like ours.”). He also was three months removed from shoulder surgery, necessary after years of falling off unicycles — mostly on purpose. He’d just emceed the fall showcase at his wife’s school, and he is teaching in the theater arts and dance program at the University of Minnesota.
Another camping adventure for the “shugemery” channel also is in the pipeline. He keeps an eye on the calendar for a two- or three-day stretch when he can jump in his van and drive north with his hammock and his camera, for another installment of Shug’s camping adventures.
Tony Jones is a writer and editor from Edina. Find him at ReverendHunter.com.